Why switch from writing non-fiction to fiction, especially when you’ve spent decades working as a journalist and your last book was Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, the acclaimed 2006 portrait of North Korea’s dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il? One advantage of fiction is that it is cheaper to write: fewer materials are needed to get everything right, and it doesn’t require travel and interviews. Another plus is that you can insert yourself in the story to the degree you wish, ideally as a better-looking, luckier-with-the-ladies version of your true self, treating the writing process as an escapist pleasure in a fantasy land – think Ian Fleming. A novel is also useful for getting away with thinly veiled attacks, whereas a non-fiction work might land you with a lawsuit or a boiled pet rabbit. Or is writing a novel just more fun, at the very least a welcome new challenge?
In Bradley Martin’s case, he felt that a follow-up non-fiction work on Kim Jong-un was unfeasible because of the lack of information:
“At this point we know very little about him — so little that even if I should put everything I know into a biography I wouldn’t feel good about charging for it. I’ve used my imagination to fill out this character’s personality, starting with what we do know about the historic Kim Jong-un.”
The novel also allowed for some interesting speculation, drawing on the author’s years of finance reporting, on a possible secret stream of revenue for the Kim regime. Martin, a veteran American journalist originally from Georgia but based in Tokyo, first visited North Korea in 1979. Both appalled and hooked, he has since returned six times, though he currently seems to be on a black list.
Nuclear Blues opens with a pulsating scene at the DMZ. Korean-American photojournalist and blues singer Heck Davis is taking pictures of the demilitarized zone from the South Korean side. He sees his reporter friend Joe Hammond, on the north side with an escorted tour group, suddenly break away and make a dash to the South. His friend is gunned down right in front of him. Hammond’s insurance company balks at paying out on his life insurance policy as his death looks a lot like suicide. Heck thinks otherwise and decides to investigate what happened to his friend, first going on an organized tour to North Korea and later working in the country as a music teacher. Along the way he uncovers multiple conspiracies and finds romance.
Soon after joining the organized tour, Heck realises that the majority of his group are “journalists thinly disguised as consultants, professors, managers….” One of them explains the North Korean logic, other than obviously wanting to get hard currency, in going along with the deceit.
“They don’t want to organize real press tours more often than they have to — because then they would have to answer tough questions, respond to complaints about the itinerary, perhaps even tell us the truth on occasion. They just want to herd a docile crowd around to the usual sights. So they’ve hit on a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. … We pretend to be ordinary tourists. If one of us starts making difficult demands, they can say, ‘Look, you’re here as a tourist. You told us you were a professor, not a journalist.”
The novel is full of fly-on-the-wall moments and informative asides. One of the things I learnt was how deforested many of the hills are in North Korea. Economic hardship has had the people scrounging for food and fuel in the mountains, and politics hasn’t helped. As explained to Heck:
“Current policy is to replant the forests, but as you can see there’s been almost no progress. Arbor Day, when everyone has to turn out to plant trees, used to be on April 6. For propaganda purposes, to make the date correspond to an event in the manufactured Kim family legend, they changed it starting in 1999 to March 2, when the ground in much of the country is still frozen. Of course many trees, planted with great ceremony on that day, die and have to be replanted.”
I also learnt a new word: avunculicide. It means the killing of an uncle. Despite the serious subjects and tension in Nuclear Blues, there are plenty of comic moments, some of which come from the bizarre nature of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its omnipotent leaders. Heck is told of Kim’s lavish lifestyle.
“He ordered a super-luxury submarine yacht with velvet curtains over the main stateroom’s picture window. The curtains are to block the view of dolphins, which otherwise might become jealous and attempt to break in while he and his companions of the day try out all the positions in the Kama Sutra.”
This, though, as I hope you will have guessed is too bizarre (not to mention too athletic) even for Kim Jung-un himself. In an excellent acknowledgements section, Martin goes through some of the inspirations for characters and plot points, explaining what was pure speculation or not. Of Kim Jong-un, Martin says:
“As far as I know, he has not yet bought a submarine yacht equipped with curtains to keep jealous dolphins from smashing the windows when they become aroused by watching him frolic in bed with members of his Pleasure Corps.”
The Pleasure Corps we are told is a harem of pretty teenage girls talent-scouted from schools. As well as Kim’s favorites, who accompany him on most of his trips, Heck’s informant says that each of his residences “has a separate contingent, with full wardrobe. The local villa’s crew are all wearing their Heidi dresses today, and when I was leaving he had put on his shepherd’s outfit with embroidered jacket and flat-brimmed hat for this afternoon’s let’s-pretend.”
Having hot girls dress up in Heidi outfits is more than Kim Jong-un’s wistful yearning for his years in Switzerland;
“The custom of ‘country days’ dates back to his father. Kim Jong-il feared that if he were known to travel anywhere by plane he would be shot down. That fear was based partly on what happened to Mao Zedong’s rival Lin Biao in 1971. Jong-il tried to limit his publicized trips abroad to countries he could reach easily by armored train, usually China and Russia. In his palace and his villas he indulged in make-believe travel. Jong-un has continued the custom even though he has less of an air travel phobia.”
The plot of Nuclear Blues involves financial intrigue, and, as suggested by the title, nuclear weapons. The latter is given an interesting religious twist. During the height of the Cold War there was always the reassuring fact that the enemy’s nuclear arsenal was in the hands of atheists. The Soviets it seemed – with no heavenly angels awaiting – were unlikely to be in a hurry to reduce the world to ashes. When it comes to religious traditions with a millennialism aspect – talk of End Times and such – nuclear destruction takes on a more frightening prospect. This is not just a feature of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. East Asia has many examples of millennial episodes, from Buddhist sects to Chinese secret societies. I won’t give away any spoilers here, but Martin’s approach is thought-provoking if ultimately far-fetched.
Published in 2017 and set in the near future, you might imagine that Martin has been lucky with his timing. Kim’s most strident nuclear bluster, which came after Martin started writing the novel, seems like stellar promotion for Nuclear Blues. In fact, the novel was the victim of poor timing. There was the death of his agent and he was unable to find another literary agent or a traditional publisher willing to take on his project. Publishers were rattled by the assumed North Korean hacking revenge taken against Sony for their 2014 film The Interview, a comedy about an assassination of Kim Jong-un. Martin has to be commended for his bravery in going ahead with the project and self-publishing the novel.
Just on courage alone, the author deserves to have his novel sell well. But, in addition, Nuclear Blues is a fun, engrossing story with a highly likable hero. From an explosive start, it builds gradually with layers of intrigue, the early reportage style giving way to an action thriller thrust, and ends with a full over-the-top Hollywood treatment.
Nuclear Blues is available from Amazon.com and various other retailers.